Slightly more than half a year into his administration, liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in is altering the geopolitical course of his country. No longer content to be seen as subordinate to the US, Moon is striking out on his own as a middle power.
Among his activities are attempting to improve relations with Beijing – seen by Washington as an adversary in the Western Pacific – by playing down a potential Washington-led security alliance for the region, and by promising to deploy no more US missile defense systems on his own soil. More recently, Moon has irked close Washington ally Japan.
And now he is entering discussions with North Korea, even as the US eschews talks with Pyongyang on any matter but denuclearization. (Though Moon seems to have won US President Donald Trump’s support for his initiative, at least in the short term, it is questionable how long this amity will persist.)
Despite both countries working hard to gloss over their differences and portray the US-South Korean alliance as being as solid as ever, Trump is likely not pleased by the perils implicit in Moon’s course. There are rumblings even among South Korean pundits that Moon needs to be wary of a trap as Seoul engages with the North.
While North Korea watchers in Seoul are concerned, some in Washington are openly discussing the breakup of the two countries’ alliance, at a time when North Korean weapons threaten not just South Korea, but also the United States. A previous piece by this writer for Asia Times brought up the likelihood of the US questioning the probity of its defense agreement with South Korea if that junior partner takes risky steps that put itself and the US in danger.
In truth, the Korean Peninsula is no longer a strategic area for US national interests. With a plethora of stand-off weapons and with Tokyo willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington in confronting Pyongyang, it is questionable whether the US needs to maintain the foothold on the Asian landmass it has established with its military outposts in South Korea.
Does this mean that if Moon makes a misstep, or if Trump comes to think that enough is enough, Washington will either clamp down on Seoul – or abandon it completely? After all, one of Trump’s campaign promises was “America first,” and he has pledged to avoid unnecessary foreign entanglements.
In fact, I would suggest that this inference is dubious for several reasons.
The simple fact is that even though South Korea is the less powerful – and therefore presumably the less influential – partner in the bilateral alliance, Moon has put Trump in a bind by acting independently. Even though some actions or statements by Seoul may clash with the positions preferred by Washington, Trump will realize that abandoning South Korea is not advisable for several reasons.
- Loss of investment. Does all the US blood and treasure invested in South Korea before, during and since the 1950-53 Korean War count for nothing? Washington has stuck with Seoul through thick and thin for more than 70 years. Now is hardly the time to bail.
- Loss of face. Abandoning South Korea would be seen as a defeat – the US being driven out not only by North Korean threats, but by disagreements over an ally’s desire for greater sovereignty and increased control of its own destiny.
- Loss of credibility. If Washington were to give up on Seoul, how would that affect the value of other security alliances? Democratic and other allies the world over would begin to question the US commitment to alliances with them. The fallout of that could be militarily and politically catastrophic.
- Emboldening adversaries. If adversaries of the US in other parts of the world observed such an American desertion, they too would begin plotting to drive wedges between Washington and its remaining allies. The consequences of this new strategy by America’s enemies could prove to be calamitous as well.
- North Korea. Without US backing, Pyongyang will have achieved its intermediate step of isolating Seoul from its safety net. Next, an emboldened North Korea could make moves toward the South – for example, requesting aid in exchange for some trivial promises that would not be honored for long. Worse, the North could extract increasingly serious compromises from the South, under threat of blackmail. That could be the camel’s nose under the tent flap – the beginning of the end for South Korea.
The last reason listed above is why Seoul needs Washington’s nuclear umbrella as well as American troops and conventional weapons in country to continue deterring Pyongyang as well as soothing edgy foreign investors. Equally important, the US needs to stay involved with South Korea for all of the prior reasons, which are in its own national interests.
While the relationship between Seoul and Washington under Moon and Trump will likely not be smooth or warm, it will most likely survive. The simple fact is that each needs the other.